Debbie Christensen congratulates son Joss, gold medalist in the freestyle slopestyle at the Rosa Khutor Extreme Park(AP Photo/Gero Breloer)

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — Joss Christensen last saw his father at a Utah hospital, stopping in for a visit shortly before he had to board a plane for an important freestyle skiing competition.

“He said, ‘Dad I’m doing this for you. I want you to be proud of me,’” recalled Christensen’s mother, Debbie.

By time Christensen landed in New Zealand, where he was set to begin his quest to make the Olympic team, his father had died. James Dale Christensen, whom everyone called JD, was 67. Christensen immediately abandoned his skiing plans.

“I just dropped everything and went straight home,” he said. “It was a really hard flight.”

That was last August. It marked the beginning of a difficult stretch for the talented 22-year-old, who mourned his father, then struggled to find the podium, barely managed to even make the Olympic team and on Thursday became perhaps the most unlikely American gold medalist to emerge from these Sochi Olympics.

“It’s been a long journey,” Christensen said.

Christensen was the last person added to the U.S. slopestyle team. He was a discretionary selection, his status boosted by a win last month at a qualifying event. He was added so late that his mother didn’t book her flight until just three days before Opening Ceremonies.

She watched her son put together nearly flawless pair of runs in Thursday’s finals. She said she could barely breathe and describe the moment as “surreal.”

“I can’t quite believe it yet,” said Debbie, who works as a travel agent in Park City.

She knows exactly for whom her son was skiing Thursday. JD Christensen was drawn to Utah by the ski slopes more than 40 years and worked as a painting contractor. He struggled through his last summer with a congenital heart problem, his wife said. Christensen’s Olympic gold medal serves as a tribute to a father who first put him on skis and whose encouragement never wavered.

“I wish he was here and I hope he’s looking down and smiling,” Joss said. “I did it for him.”

“He’d be very proud,” Debbie said of her late husband. “He’s up there smiling.”